This story is a take on “West Side Story” meets “Warehouse 13”,
Myka Bering as Maria
Pete Lattimer as Bernardo
Artie Nielsen as Their Father
Claudia Donovan as Anita
Steve Jinks as Chino
Adwin Kosan as Action (albeit transferred to the Sharks)
James MacPherson as Riff
HG Wells as Tony
“Woolly” Wolcott as Baby John
Mrs. Frederic as Doc
Hugo Miller as Glad Hand
…and Leena singing “Somewhere”.
The hot asphalt vibrates under her soles.
She wears proper shoes, they all do. Once a Thirteen, always a Thirteen.
Her steps own the street, hands in her pockets, vest buttoned up. It’s not Poland any longer, not London, but it is her street. Theirs.
An arm’s length behind her, her steps are echoed by her brother. None of them walks alone, not that close to the end of their territory, but Helena will walk wherever she pleases, even if Woolly asks her not to.
“We should head back, everything’s quiet.”
Helena is looking past the next few houses, where the sunlight barely cuts into the narrow alleyways in between, and smiles. “But I like the view.”
Behind the hydrant to the right – the capped it open just the other week, when the August heat became too much – lays Mushroom territory, or at least they’d like to claim it.
“What a stupid name for a gang is that?” Woolly asked when they first got here, a little too loudly, and laughing at it, and then Helena wasn’t there when a bunch of Mushrooms picked Woolly up and broke his nose. It’s a little crooked now, making him look less the gentle guy he is.
Perhaps he isn’t cut out for this life, and neither is Helena, but Helena knows how to take care of herself. And of Woolly. She’s always done so, since they managed to get two of the last passages out, kids’ tickets, before the war took everything else.
And after they taped Woolly’s nose and James cursed and said it was time to clear out the trash, Helena snuck back at night, color at the ready, and left a bright red 13 on a house wall right in the heart of Mushroom territory.
Afterwards, James made her his second in command.
Within the Thirteens, nobody dares to speak up against her. Helena knows that she gets looks on the block – at her pants, her vest, her gait. At the hours she spends on her father’s typewriter, the only thing that made the ocean passage. People quickly look away when she turns around, but there are some girls who don’t avert their eyes when she passes. And Helena smiles.
“I don’t care what they say,” Mrs. Frederic from the corner store just shakes her head. “Nobody smashed in a window of mine since you showed up, that’s what I know, God bless.” She points with her thumb at the backroom. “Olson from 7B dropped off an old radio. In case you want to tinker…”
Helena likes to tinker. She also likes Mrs. Frederic’s niece, who sells her a typewriter ribbon every couple of months and doesn’t look away, but Helena doesn’t dare to smile too closely at Leena.
Sometimes, Leena brings her a soda when she works on something in the backroom, for a few bucks off on the next typewriter ribbon.
“Someday, you’ve got to show me what you’re writing.”
It’s what Helena always says.
“I get it,” Leena assures her. “It’s your way of being somewhere else.”
Leena wipes down the counter and dreams of her own café, and Helena helps her wipe off the slogans at the door when some idiots who think in colors have vandalized the store again.
And Helena wonders whether this is all that’ll ever be, the Thirteens and tinkering with old radios and the typewriter at night.
She has to think about it now, as she walks on with Woolly, steps confident on the burning street. Their street.
She sees them first, three of them, up ahead, and she quickly pulls Woolly into an alleyway. Helena has taken on fights outnumbered – there’s a scar on her arm to speak for it, from a Mushroom and a broken bottle – but she knows when she’s outmuscled.
“Kosan,” she mouths at Woolly, and he nods, ducking into the shadows next to her.
There’s a brick wall at their backs, blank and standing too close to the wired maze of fire escapes across the alleyway. Helena looks up. She has to tip her head back to see a spot where the sunlight actually reaches down and touches the windows behind the metal.
One of them is opened, despite the heat.
Someone is sitting on the windowsill, soaking up the sun. Helena can only make out a fall of curly brown hair and two hands holding a book, and one bare leg dangling low against the metal stairs, back and forth, back and forth.
Helena follows the motion with her eyes for a minute, like a cat would follow a piece of yarn before it jumps.
She pounces when the girl blinks up into the sun while she turns a page.
“Looks very interesting,” she calls out, mindful to keep her voice down. “Would you recommend the read?”
“Damn it, Helena, this is already Mushroom territory,” Woolly hisses next to her. “What are you doing?”
“Getting literature recommendations,” Helena whispers with a laugh. She stands and her eyes are still on that long, bare leg.
The book gets snapped shut and that the leg stills its motion and disappears from sight, but the girl leans over to look down into the alley, her curiosity piqued. “Depends on whether you like McCullers,” she answers coolly, as if she doesn’t know whether to be charmed or to be annoyed at the interruption.
Helena can’t really see her face. She just sees sunlight dance on curly hair, and the dark frame of a pair of glasses. “I think I do now.” Helena steps forward into the light and grabs onto the lowest bar of the stairs, her best smile firmly in place as she leans against the metal with her upper arms and tilts up her head.
From above, there’s a hint of a smile that Helena just knows will be dazzling, but then the girl – she has to be about her own age, Helena thinks – takes in the trousers and the vest, and the smile is gone.
The sound of the window being closed echoes down into the alley.
“Who was that at the window?”
“Nobody, Dad.” Myka manages not to sigh at that. Across the room, she exchanges a look with her brother. “Just someone asking for directions.”
Her father’s grumpy attitude has turned into paranoia since he has returned from the war. It’s been a decade, but there’s no end in sight. “I don’t want you talking to strangers.”
Myka wants to point out that she find a third-storey window a safe distance for talking to anyone, but she has learnt to say things out loud only inside her head.
“We’ve got more important things to deal with,” Pete states. He is the only one their father will listen to, at least at times.
Artie pulls himself up from his chair. He is walking slowly and with a cane, another souvenir from the war. “You got that right, we’re running inventory at the warehouse this week.”
Pete groans and even gentle-mannered Steve allows himself to roll his eyes, just a little. He is a cousin so removed that even Myka – and she is the meticulous one – cannot piece together just how he relates to them. He’s staying with them and everyone pretends that it is for no reason, although they all know that Myka is already a little past the point where a girl should get married.
“Is the warehouse keeping you clothed and fed or isn’t it?”
“It is, Mr. Bering.”
Of course Steve is the first one to agree. Pete still grimaces.
Myka things they don’t have much to complain about. She’s the clerk who will do the bulk of the inventory, especially since her father can’t walk the aisles like he used to. But Myka doesn’t really mind the long hours in front of dusty shelves, faced with things nobody will ever buy. She has learned to live another life in her head while she catalogues and checks off boxes, dreaming of going to university, and studying Literature and interviewing Carson McCullers.
“There’s no argument, then,” Artie states and nobody speaks up as he walks out of the room.
As soon as he is out the room, Pete jumps up. “And now for the really important things.” He crosses his arms in front of his chest and the short sleeves of his t-shirt tighten around his upper arms and Myka notices how Steve’s gaze strays for a second. “We’ve got to do something about those damn Thirteens!”
“Kosan’s still on patrol,” Steve reminds him. “None of them dares to mess with him.”
“True.” Pete nods at his right-hand man.
Steve wears a dress shirt, shirtsleeves rolled up impeccably, and he straightens a little.
“Oh please, Kosan can patrol how many streets at once?” Claudia looks at her nails where she leans against the table. “As if a piece of muscle would solve the problem!”
Pete doesn’t get mad. “Do you have a better idea?” Claudia is the daughter of Artie’s late baby sister and she gets to say all and wear the things Myka would never be allowed to.
“Tomorrow night’s the dance at the community center,” Steve suggests. “If we go, so will the Thirteens.”
“And we can challenge them to settle this once and for all?” Pete’s hand lands on Steve’s shoulder. “Good plan. I like that.”
Steve looks down at the floor for a moment, anywhere but at Pete, and Myka thinks that she and Steve may have more in common than they will ever admit to each other.
Claudia pops her chewing gum and toys with one of her earrings. “A community dance? – Snore.”
“Yes, that’s for the kids,” Myka adds and hopes that she won’t have to go.
“Well, you can practice a bit then,” Pete decided. His arm is still draped around Steve’s shoulder and he gives it a squeeze before he pulls back. “You’ll have kids soon enough once you get married.”
“There’s no hurry,” Myka says even while she knows that this is an argument she is losing.
Pete looks at her for a long moment. “It’s best for the family.”
It’s the same thing their father says, and Pete is the leader.
“At least wait with the kids.” Claudia tugs her neckline a little lower. “The family’s big enough already, or how do you want to fit another stomach in here, not to mention another set of lungs? The neighbors are complaining already.” She looks in between Steve and Myka. “I’m sure they’d be thrilled about some baby-making.”
Both Myka and Steve are blushing now, and Pete glares at Claudia.
“It’s settled, then.” Pete bounces on his feet. “We’ll sound out the Thirteens tomorrow night and issue a challenge. I want James and his pack off our street!”
At least this is something they agree on, although Myka remembers the girl in the vest and trousers underneath her window and wonders whether any Thirteen would be brazen enough to just walk into Mushroom territory and chat about literature.
“I’ll take Claudia. Steve, you take Myka.”
Steve nods, but his eyes linger where Pete’s sleeves are riding up.
Myka suppresses a sigh and resigns herself to an evening without a book.
She doesn’t mind Steve, he is nice enough, And Myka knows that she can count on him to take her to the dance, and tell her that she looks lovely. And later, he will take her home again, and kiss her goodnight on the cheek. And he will marry her and he will treat her with kindness.
Myka knows she should be grateful.
Pete’s arm slips around her shoulder. “You’ll look beautiful tomorrow,” he promises her. “We need to stick together, now that the Thirteens are trying to muscle in!”
And Myka just wants to curl up with a book instead.
Streamers over chipped wall color, linoleum worn with use and the scent of stale lemonade.
Myka keeps closer to the wall on the uneven floor, a hand at the ready. She doesn’t want to lose her footing. Steve has let go of her arm at her slightest tug and she doesn’t wear her glasses and she really doesn’t need a gaggle of kids half a decade her junior to make fun of her.
“Oh, look who’s there,” Claudia sneers, an arm linked through Pete’s. “A whole bunch of bad luck!”
She says it loud enough for the advancing figures to hear her and Steve immediately moves up to Pete’s other side.
Myka blinks behind them, trying to bring the three blurry silhouettes that approach them into focus. Dark slacks, dark vests. Shirtsleeves and three shocks of dark hair. One of the figures is slighter and moves with more grace than the others.
“Oh, what’s this sudden stench of mildew in here?” James’ tones cut through the chatter.
“Guess it grows in places that start to foul,” a male voice to his left cuts in, and James chuckles.
Pete balls his fists, Myka can see the tension build in his shoulders at the close distance. Soundlessly, Kosan’s bulky frame appears at her side.
“Should we polish away some bad luck?” He cracks his knuckles, but Pete waves it off with one hand.
Kosan’s hands fall to his sides, still curled into fists. He’s the one who would have liked to be in the military, but Pete actually went, and that’s why everyone listens to him. Myka wonders whether he would have liked to stay, but it’s a pointless question. Their father called him home to help with the warehouse and take care of the family, and family comes first.
Steve straightens to stand a little taller.
“Now wouldn’t the street look so much nicer without these bad weeds,” James drawls, and from the corner of her eye, Myka can see more figures in vests emerge from the crowd and form a throng around them.
“You wish,” Pete snorts. “So let’s settle this once and for all. We would let you walk away, but if you prefer to get your ass handed to you…”
Kosan rolls his shoulders.
James seems amused. “We’ll see who gets handed what.”
“I don’t think you’ve been in the military,” Steve points out hotly.
James’ laugh is gone.
“We got out of Warsaw,” the figure to his right speaks up and Myka squints when she recognizes a female voice, with a cadence too educated for this dance and this community center and this street. “And you got out of the forces, didn’t you? How did that happen again?”
Myka can’t see it, but she knows that red ire is trailing up Pete’s neck. He doesn’t talk about that, and not even Claudia dares to touch that issue.
The wall is four feet away, Myka calculates, because in this petticoat and with these shoes there’s not much she can do when it comes to blows, unless it’s a staircase and Bob Benatzky tries to grab her one more time in passing. He was quick to assure everyone afterwards that he had broken his arm because he had stumbled down the staircase on his own.
Myka can see how Kosan balls his hands into fists again.
“Boys! Girls!” Loudly clapping his hands, disheveled gray hair combed back from his face, the social worker of the community center steps in between Pete and James.
“Now, I’m Mr. Hugo, and we’ll all have a nice little dance tonight, won’t we?”
Two tense moments pass, then James steps back, and so does Pete.
“Right, boys and girls, and now let’s all line up to find a dance partner – two circles, please!”
She can’t see it, but Myka imagines that everyone, no matter whether Mushroom or Thirteen, is rolling their eyes at the overly cheerful Mr. Hugo. But if Pete, making faces behind Mr. Hugo’s back, is lining up in the circle – girls on the inside, boys on the outside – so will the rest of them.
They brush pass James and a young man with a crooked nose.
“Negotiations tomorrow afternoon, behind the corner store. Just one adjutant.”
Pete nods, and so do Steve and Kosan.
Two circles. Myka is standing opposite Steve, who wears a checkered shirt and slim black tie and smiles a tad nervously. He’s standing just far enough away that his features begin to soften a little to her eyes, along with the colors of his shirt.
Myka isn’t sure whether tonight is supposed to count as a date, but there is no more time to think because a sprightly march blares from the speakers and she nearly trips over her own feet as she sets out to follow the back of the girl in front of her, a splash of bright yellow.
She nearly stumbles again when she walks past a woman in the outer circle. She wears slacks, hands pushed into her pockets, and marches along with an expression between obstinate and blasé. Myka finds a smile tugging at her lips and she also finds it oddly appealing. She has already passed three more boys when it strikes her that the woman was wearing a vest over her shirt.
When the music stops, there’s a sandy-haired guy standing in front of Myka. He’s not a Mushroom, but he doesn’t wear a vest, either. His smile isn’t enthusiastic, and Myka extends her hand with resignation. Before he can take hold of it, however, another hand reaches in and pulls Myka away to the side.
“Hi, I –“
The woman falls silent when their eyes meet and Myka knows she can’t blame her nearsightedness for the slight dizziness she feels, because the woman is standing right in front of her. Close enough for Myka to see her eyelashes.
It’s the woman who stood under her window, the one she just passed in walking. The one who wears a vest.
And Myka’s only thought is that she’s exquisite. Pale, aristocratic features and a sensuous curve of jaw, a hint of melancholy to warm brown eyes, like a Chopin mazurka sprung to life.
She’s silent, her gaze very intent, and there’s a rakish smile on her lips that is very becoming.
“I am Myka,” Myka finally offers. She would extend her hand, but the woman is still holding onto it.
Distantly, Myka notices that the music starts playing, but they don’t move.
“Myka…” the woman repeats, and her smile broadens a little. “A pleasure.”
And Myka suddenly wishes she had properly combed her hair before going out, and not taken the old dove-blue dress that simply had hung first in row in the closet. Around them, couples are moving across the dance floor.
Belatedly, the woman motions at herself. “Helena,” she manages and she’s clearly not used to being so tongue-tied.
Myka clears her throat. “Would you like to dance?”
Helena’s smile is dazzling. “Dancing and literature recommendations?” Her other hands slips around Myka’s waist, tentatively. “How did I get so lucky?”
Myka watches her own hand curl lightly into the fabric of a white shirtsleeve as they begin to move. Around them is just a blur of colors and she manages not to stumble.
“So you like to read.” There’s that smile again, curving those lips, and it’s not really a question.
“Yes.” Myka’s voice sounds breathy to her own ears, and she isn’t thinking about reading at the moment.
“I love reading,” Helena murmurs. The touch of her hand is light, but Myka is very aware of its warmth through the fabric of her dress and Helena sounds as if she isn’t thinking about reading, either.
Myka traces the contours of Helena’s lips with her eyes, and she can’t help but lean closer. Helena doesn’t lean away. Her lips are close enough for Myka to feel her own breath echo off them, but then a hand lands on her shoulder and tears her away.
“Get off her, you freak!” Pete shoves Helena half across the room.
“What are you doing?!” Steve catches Myka who struggles to regain her footing. “That’s the second-in-command of the Thirteens!”
“Are you out of your mind?” Pete roars, and now he is looking at Myka.
“She doesn’t have her glasses, Pete,” Claudia points out. There’s a click as she continues to chew her gum.
“Don’t tell me you can’t see a vest right in front of you!” He throws a disgusted look in Helena’s direction and then nods at Steve. “Take her home.”
Myka tries to look back over her shoulder when Steve leads her out of the hall, but all she can see is a blur of colors.
The night is warm, too warm to sleep. Myka sits on the windowsill, the barest hint of a breeze against her bare legs.
Claudia’s bed across the room is empty. It’s long past midnight and Myka can’t sleep. Perhaps Steve has gone back to the dance; she hasn’t heard him go to the room he shares with Pete. Even he looked disappointed in her tonight.
The second-in-command of the Thirteens.
Myka just can’t bring herself to regret it. And she can’t sleep, so she looks up at the stars at the stretch of clear sky above. Her left side still tingles with the memory of Helena’s palm against it. The dove-blue dress still hangs from the closet door.
The sheets of her own bed lay pristinely folded and untouched, and Myka prefers the stars tonight.
A rattle down in the street tears her out of her thoughts and at first, she wants to close the window, but then curiosity wins out.
Down in front of the brick wall stands Helena, caught in the slim streak of light of a street lamp, as if Myka conjured her up by her thoughts.
“What are you doing here?” Myka’s worried gaze goes to the end of the alleyway. If they find her here, Helena has nowhere to run.
“Myka –“ There’s a huge smile on Helena’s face, and before Myka can say anything else, there’s another rattle of metal when Helena reaches for the lowest bar of the fire escape and pulls herself up.
“Are you out of your mind?” Myka tries to keep her voice down.
Helena stops in her ascent for a moment and laughs. “You tell me.”
“You’re crazy,” Myka murmurs while her eyes follow Helena’s graceful movements, only the shirts of her sleeve and her face alight in the darkness. “They’ll break your nose if they find you!”
“Then I have to hope you won’t tell them.” Helena’s voice is confident as she takes the last set of stairs and comes level with Myka.
Hastily, Myka pulls her glasses off, and when she blinks into the low light, there’s just the outline of Helena’s face, her hair blending into the night around her.
“Don’t.” Helena’s fingers still her hand. “I like them on you.”
Myka gives her a doubtful look.
“I like it when you read.” Helena’s fingers curl around hers. “Also, I want you to see me.”
Myka bends her head down, a little closer to Helena’s. “I don’t need my glasses for that.”
And once more, Helena is tongue-tied as Myka’s eyes search her face.
“What do you want?” Myka finally asks, and she feels inept at this kind of talk, like a blade that is too dull.
Helena‘s smile is back. “What do you want me to want?”
“Are you always like this?” Myka wonders. “Teasing, and waiting for someone else to say the serious things?”
Helena blinks, and the smile is gone for a moment before it returns, softer now. “You are braver than I am, Myka.”
Myka can feel scars on Helena’s hand and she wants to protest, but then her fingers reach out to trace that smile, and then it is her lips on Helena’s, and she doesn’t feel inept at all.
And Myka wants to bottle up that surprised, somewhat breathless laugh and carry it close to her heart for as long as her heart will keep beating. There’s something in Helena’s eyes now that makes Myka’s dart away only to return. Her entire body seems to be humming and she bites her lip, but she doesn’t know whether it is to stop the feeling. Her fingers toy with the collar of Helena’s shirt and brush along the cut of her vest.
“Do you always wear this?”
Helena squirms under her touch, and there is a vulnerability to her expression that hasn’t been there before. “Mostly,” she admits. “We all do.”
“Yes, you all do.” For a sobering moment, Myka remembers that the woman in front of her is a Thirteen, but then she looks at her lips and she doesn’t remember any longer. “I like it on you,” she decides. “It’s unusual… but I don’t think usual would suit you.”
Helena’s breath catches, Myka can hear it, and then Helena kisses her again, but this is different. A tongue is sliding against her own and she can feel the tremble down Helena’s throat as a tiny sound forms that makes Myka dig her fingers into Helena’s shirt and her hair.
Myka hasn’t kissed anyone like this, not another girl, and most definitely not like this.
The clang of metal down in the alley makes them break apart and Myka fumbles for her glasses, heartbeat racing in panic. With relief, she sees the silhouette of a cat saunter past the trash bins, but there are voices in the apartment now. “You’ve got to leave.”
Helena doesn’t move. “When can we meet again? Where?”
“Meet? You?” Myka finds the idea delusional. “My brother is the head of the Mushrooms!” She also finds the idea utterly appealing.
“But his sister is far too alluring,” Helena whispers. “We could talk about books.”
Against her will, a smile tugs at Myka’s lips. “So you like to read, hm?”
Helena hesitates. “I also write.” It doesn’t sound as if it’s something she shares with everyone.
Myka’s eyes light up. “Could I read it?”
Helena bows her head for a moment, a dated gesture, but it fits her. “I’d be honored.”
Myka looks at her for a long moment. “I work at the warehouse,” she finally says. “In the evenings, there’s usually nobody around…”
Helena looks so happy that Myka thinks her heart will burst. “Just be careful nobody sees you,” she mutters and she can’t believe that she just agreed on a date with a Thirteen.
“I will be invisible,” Helena promises and Myka wants to point out there is no such thing, but then she thinks better of it and kisses Helena again.
And Helena moves in for another kiss, her lips parted and her hair disheveled. “Good night to you, too.”
Steps are coming down the corridor now and Myka swings back onto the window shelf, pushing Helena away just before the door opens. She feels Helena’s lips against the back of her hand before the quiet scrape of metal accompanies Helena’s path down into the street.
“Worried about the meeting?”
Leena is standing next to Helena behind the corner store. They have opened the back door to paint a small square of shadow onto the ground, but Helena can feel the heat right through her soles regardless.
“No, not really,” she says. She has rolled up her sleeves, but she won’t take off her vest.
“Something else, then.” Leena smiles, and she seems to know already. “Someone.”
“It’s just…” Helena isn’t ready yet to talk about stolen kisses on metal stairs and the giddy sensation of possibility. “There’s got to be something beyond this street, and the rumbles, and the Thirteens.”
“Someplace.” Leena leans back against the brick wall and closes her eyes against the sun. “Isn’t that what you’re writing? Places where it doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, or what color your skin?”
“If nobody writes about it, it won’t happen,” Helena defends her late nights.
Leena laughs. “You once wrote about men on the moon, you said.”
“Who knows what will happen?” Helena looks up into the sky as well, and she tries to keep her eyes open. “I could use a little corner on the moon.”
“You stay down here,” Mrs. Frederic calls from where she’s looking for something in the backroom. “I don’t need no turf wars on the moon! And I don’t want no rumble in my backyard, is that clear?”
Before Helena can reply, there are steps echoing off the walls along with the heat and she moves in front of Leena. “You better head in, I think they’re here.”
James saunters around the corner, as if there isn’t a care in the world. Next to him, there’s Woolly, who takes up position at the entrance to the courtyard, hands behind his back. He doesn’t shy away when Pete walks in, flanked by Steve and Claudia, and he still stands tall when Kosan moves to tower opposite him.
Even Claudia, in walking past, senses his seriousness and looks in between him and Kosan. “Down, boys,” she advises and pushed her gum to the other side of her mouth.
“What is she doing here?” James wants to know. “One adjutant!”
“Oh, I’m no adjutant.” Claudia looks around the courtyard. “But this place could use some prettying up, so…”
Pete grins, and Helena saunters over to stand next to James, but her eyes are on Claudia. “Have it your way, but I would never refer to a girl as a piece of decoration.”
And for a moment, not even Claudia has a retort.
“Stop it!” Pete orders Helena angrily. Then he nods at Claudia. “Scoot.”
Claudia gives him a defiant look for a second, but then she shrugs and walks out of the courtyard, her eyes trailing over Woolly as she leaves.
Helena smiles at her retreating form, and Steve catches her gaze. “Stop it, you freak!”
Pete builds himself up in front of Helena. “You do as much as look at a girl of my family again, and I’ll wring your neck!”
Past his shoulder, Helena nods at Steve. “Does that go for all the girls?” she asks silkily.
Steve is in her face in an instant, cheeks bright red with fury, but Helena deflects his fist easily.
Pete’s hand lands on Steve’s shoulder to pull him back. “Don’t listen to her.” He glowers at the smirk that curls Helena’s lips upward. “You can break her face at the fight.”
“Right,” James cuts in. “Let’s settle this like the uncivilized people you are.”
“Three days time,” Pete suggests crisply, and it takes him a few seconds to back away from Helena. “Nightfall. The highway bridge.”
“Deal.” James extends his hand, and they shake on it.
“Weapons?” Pete continues.
“What, afraid to split your knuckles?” Helena has her hands pushed into her pockets and she’s still smiling. “Need to hide behind a bottleneck?”
“I don’t need a weapon to shut you up,” Pete bites out.
“Those who need them may bring weapons,” James offers. “And we’ll just call them cowards.”
After a moment, Pete extends his hand. “Loser clears the street,” he demands.
James sneers. “You can already start packing.”
Another shake of hand and everything is set. Pete and Steve walk out of the courtyard, her steps easily falling into tandem. Kosan trails behind them.
“That went well,” James muses.
“I guess.” Helena sees the pride in Woolly’s stance and she just feels tired. “I’ve got to go.”
“Do what?” James wants to know.
Helena shrugs. “Take a walk.”
“With that girl?” James has always been observant. It’s what got him out of Warsaw, and it’s what made them their leader during the long ship passage.
“What girl?” Helena, in turn, has learned to pretend to blend in.
“That Mushroom girl.” James smiles, but it’s not a friendly a expression. “I saw you at the dance. Pete’s sister – Imagine the word on the street if you could bed that one…”
“Not a chance,” Helena replies, a little too quickly, so she tries to cover it up. “Besides, I don’t need to fight dirty.”
She doesn’t want to fight at all as she crosses the street and pulls a hat into her face despite the heat. She drifts along with the crowd on the sidewalks, into streets where she shouldn’t been seen. She wants to forget about fighting and instead dreams about holding hands at the movies and sharing a library card and sipping oversweet milkshakes at the ice-cream parlor on Sunday afternoons.
Right now, she slips into the shadows, the barren structure of the warehouse already looming in front of her. Helena draws her hat down deeper over her eyes and walks through the gate, and then to a quiet cargo entrance on the left. The door is unlocked.
Her soles brush across the cement floor as she moves past crates and boxes. There’s a small office to the side, and she catches sight of a tumble of chestnut curls and a bright green gaze that makes everything else fall away.
It’s the sun’s echo that ripples over the river at dusk, where she once walked with her mother, and the green of the trees in front of Ujazdowski Castle in early spring. It’s yearning, and stretching across, and arriving all at once.
Myka jumps, startled, and her eyes darts all over the room, except over to Helena, who takes another step closer to see Claudia leaning against a table to the left.
“Long time no see,” Claudia drawls, sharp eyes on Helena, but then she takes one look at the way Myka blushes and the way Helena curses under her breath, and shakes her head. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
“She just came by to drop something off,” Myka says hastily.
“Sure.” Arms crossed over her chest, Claudia circles Helena. “A shitload of bad news. In the flesh.”
Helena’s hands flex, but she doesn’t move.
“At least that explains while you’ve been jittery since I got here,” Claudia states dryly. She rolls her eyes. “I’m fine, Claudia. Don’t you worry, Claudia. You go ahead, Claudia, I’ll just stay for a bit and clean a few aisles…”
Myka is still seated where she has been going over bills and receipts. She just listens, calmly, and she doesn’t look as if she’s going to change her mind because of anything Claudia might say. She wears her glasses, the slightest of frowns on her forehead, and Helena can’t even bring herself to care that Claudia has caught her.
“You’ve clearly lost your mind. Both of you,” Claudia decides, and then she groans when Helena moves to stand next to Myka, hovering protectively over her shoulder. “For the love of God! The second-in-command of the Thirteens?” She eyes up Helena, and there’s a measure of respect in her gaze. “Good thing I didn’t see you here,” she finally says. “Good thing Myka will be home by ten, too.” She points at Helena now. “Without a hair out of place!”
“She won’t hurt me,” Myka interjects.
“Oh, I have no doubt that she’ll treat you right,” Claudia mutters and her tone brings a tinge of red even to Helena’s ears. “I’m more concerned about our guys.”
But there is no room for concern as she leaves and Myka’s hands find Helena’s among the papers.
“She won’t tell anyone.”
Helena smiles, all bravado. “It’s worth the risk.”
Myka doesn’t smile, though. “I think Steve would kill you.”
“Steve?” Helena remembers the man ready to strike her down half an hour ago. “I think so, too.”
“I’m supposed to marry him,” Myka points out primly, and Helena isn’t smiling any longer.
“Oh good Lord”. It’s amusing, because if anything, he looks like a younger brother to Myka, but the idea of Myka’s arms around him makes her want to hit something.
“I know,” Myka nods. “I will have to elope before that.”
“You may be right about that,” Helena agrees easily, but then she notices that Myka’s eyes are serious.
And Helena’s mouth is suddenly dry. It is too much, too soon, and at the same time, it feels so utterly right, and there are Myka’s eyes on her again and Helena believes that she could do anything, if only Myka asks.
She remembers the first apple she ate in London, green and tart, after their flight, and she remembers the clear waters of the Vistula south of town on the weekends, and everything is fresh, and new, and possible.
“I guess I could write elsewhere.” Her heart hammers in her chest. “And I suppose they do have libraries elsewhere, as well…”
Myka’s fingers trace patterns over the back of her hand, as if she were examining a precious work of jewelry. “So you like to read, and you write.”
“Sometimes, I paint,” Helena says and she doesn’t know why she’s admitting to that. “I like painting, too.”
“An artist.” Myka pretends to sigh. “I see that I will have to get an actual job and earn the money. – Or is there anything else you like?”
“You.” Helena’s voice is very soft, but Myka hears her well because she has risen to her feet and Helena is now trapped between the desk and Myka, with Myka’s hands settling on her hips. “I like you.”
And Myka’s lips are smooth and sweet and Helena thinks she could stand here forever and drink in these kisses, but then she is sitting on the table, and Myka’s arms are wrapped around her and, actually, there are quite a few locks out of place already.
“Can I see you again?” Helena whispers, even though they are here right now, but it is not enough. Her fingers sneak underneath a strap of dress, pale violet with white polka-dots.
“With my brother ready to smash your head in?” Perhaps they should stop what they’re doing and have a serious talk about things, but Helena is not about to ask Myka to still her fingers. “You’ve got to stop that fight.”
“They need to vent a bit,” Helena murmurs and she is about to burst into pieces for an entirely different reason. “And then we’ll arrange for a truce, each sticking to their corner.”
“And where is your corner?” Myka breathes close to Helena’s ear and her glasses have long since ended up on a stack of paper to the side.
“Wherever you are.” Helena’s lips move down a curve of throat.
Myka laughs against her skin, and it is a glorious feeling. “You want to join the Mushrooms?”
“No, but I want to see you again.” And Helena doesn’t dare to say it, not yet, but it’s something she wants to do every day, until they both need heavy glasses to pick out books at the library and perhaps they’ll have a cat or a dog and wear old lady hats, and sip hot chocolate at the ice cream parlor on Sunday afternoons and read each other the paper.
Myka looks at her, her eyes clear and unafraid. “Well, you know where I work.”
“What in the… Myka Bering, get in here, now!!”
Her father’s voice bellows through the apartment and Myka’s hairbrush clatters to the floor, the daydreams gone – Helena’s fingers combing through her hair, Helena’s warmth behind her, Helena’s breath against the small patch of skin where her shoulder blades meet…
With trepidation, Myka walks over into the living room to find them all gathered – Claudia, and Pete, and Steve. And Artie, standing in the middle of the room without his cane. He uses that to point at the window, shaking with fury.
Baffled, Myka moves to look outside and gasps.
Gone is the dirty red brick wall that she can almost touch when she leans far out on the balcony. Instead, there’s swung lines, black and white and violets and reds… she has to duck her head a little to see the where the painting ends.
“What is this?!”
Helena likes to paint, and Myka doesn’t know how to explain to her father that there’s a larger-than-life portrait of his daughter – head bent over a book, smile playing about her lips, curls tumbling intimately loose around her face – adorning the wall opposite his apartment, perfectly in view.
“I… don’t know,” Myka stalls. Her eyes follow the lines that sketch out her face, in loving detail, and if this is how Helena sees her, she will never stop smiling again.
“Is there anything funny about this?” Her father wants to know.
And Myka wisely say, “No, Sir,” but when she walks away from the window, she walks on air.
She will tell Helena that she’s crazy, and what was she thinking, she could have gotten caught, but most of all, she wants to kiss her senseless.
“Who did this?!”
But before Myka is forced to lie, Claudia cuts in. “And anonymous admirer, I’d guess.” She leans out of the window and nods. “More original than flowers. And classier than pinching your butt in the staircase.”
“I will have no such image of my daughter up on a wall!” Artie is still fuming. “What is Steve going to say?”
But Steve doesn’t paint. He shifts uncomfortably where he stands.
“Oh, it’s not so bad.” Claudia leans next to the window. “It’s not like some Thirteen thug drew a pin-up on our wall.”
“At least it’s not that,” Steve hurries to say.
“She’s reading,” Claudia points out. “The whole block knows how Myka loves her books! And a girl with a book… the Salvation Army would paint that!”
That does, of course, neglect the way a violet polka-dot strap sits a little askew on the portrait Myka, and the sensuous edge to her smile.
“I still don’t like it.” Pete’s jaw twitches. “It looks like something that a Thirteen would pull.”
“The one from the dance,” Steve adds. “We all saw her look at Myka.”
“Of course.” Pete nods. “Damn, the nerve! How did she even get here?”
“Who?” Artie asks sharply.
“That Thirteen girl who almost danced with Myka the other day,” Steve supplises
Now Artie isn’t yelling, and now Myka is nervous.
“It was an accident,” she says as calmly as possible. “She walked in line with the boys, and ended up in front of me. And I didn’t have my glasses…”
“You better clean it up with those Thirteens once and for all!”
Pete nods grimly as their father walks out, and Myka has to hurry to make her shift at the warehouse. She wonders if Helena will visit again in the evening, but Steve drops by at lunch and asks her out to the cinema.
Myka wonders whether Pete or her father have put him up to it, but Claudia agrees for the both of them and as Myka glares at her, Claudia winks. And in the end, Steve is happy to let Claudia watch the romantic drama with Myka, and Pete agrees to watch the latest Steve Reeves flick with him in one of the other halls.
The only one who watches the movie is Claudia, though, sitting a few rows further to the front while Myka smiles at Helena slipping into the vacant seat, and they duck out of sight and she does indeed kiss her senseless.
One day has passed and two more remain. Nerves about the fight begin to show and Woolly is training with James, but Helena sits at the Public Library and smiles at a Mushroom girl across the table.
Helena also shows up at the warehouse again in the evening, perhaps it’s the last evening they’ll ever have, and she carries a heavy paper package.
She has never shown her manuscripts to anyone, not even Leena, but Myka’s eyes light up and there’s her absurdly pleased smile, and it is definitely worth it. And Helena kisses the corner of Myka’s mouth for good measure, and then she kisses her lips.
Myka’s breath is unsteady when she admits that she really doesn’t want to marry Steve. And they dare to dream, which is why Helena is later standing behind the corner store with Leena. Thick heat radiates off the concrete even in the evening hour.
“We’ve still got family up North.” Leena leans against the metal door. “It would just be for a few nights, obviously –“ She nods at Helena’s hands. “You’d find something fixing up things.”
“And Myka is good with books.” Helena can’t help but smile at saying her name. “If we say we’re cousins, we’d get a place, and I’ve got enough for the ride…”
“I’ve got a bit saved up, too.” Leena says and she sighs.
Dusk is falling and Helena needs to hurry. She will probably break a nose or two tonight, but it’s not the rush of excitement any longer – their street, their turf, the Thirteens, ever since they made it past Ellis Island on one lucky 13th of the month.
Now, Helena hopes the fight will be over quickly. Myka won’t be at the warehouse anymore at this hour, but Helena wants to write, all night long, and she wants Myka to read it.
Two streetlamps are black under the highway bridge, the lights smashed. They don’t want to be interrupted. Helena falls into step among the group, and she walks in front next to Woolly and James.
On the other side, the outline of the Mushrooms come closer, Kosan’s towering frame, Pete’s fists curling and uncurling at his side, and Steve’s alert, quiet gait in his shadow. To the side, there’s Claudia’s slighter frame, taking up a stance at the sidelines.
Helena cranes her head, but Myka is nowhere in sight.
“Girls can still leave,” Steve has seen her look. “Don’t you have something to paint somewhere?”
James’ hand is on Helena’s shoulder. “The pavement. With you.”
“I’ll take care of it,” Pete mutters and juts his jaw out. “And you…” He glares at Helena. “I’ll snap you like the twig you are.”
“Freak,” Steve spits out.
“Don’t you dare call her a freak!” Woolly is cavalier when it comes to his sister; she has taught him well. But she has forgotten to mention that sometimes, bravery is a stupid thing. He charges against the Steve and the rumble is open, but Kosan steps in front of Steve, and then it’s yells and cracking knuckles and Helena doesn’t know who started it, but the first stone is flying past her and she curses. There’s the crack of bottle shards.
She’s in between James and Woolly, helping them against Kosan, and from the corner of her eye, she sees Pete and Steve and there’s Kosan again and the flash of a knife. Woolly doesn’t back away, standing his ground.
“Careful!” Helena yells, but when she hurries over to him, she can only catch him as he falls.
For a moment, the fight stills, as if everyone is suddenly afraid of their own courage. Woolly’s hand digs into Helena’s arm and there’s blood on his shirt.
“I’ll warm you up,” Helena promises, and suddenly, she’s a scrawny twelve-year-old again, and he is five and afraid and clinging to her back, and she carries him out, past the guns and the uniforms and in the end, they make it to London.
“Will we make it?”
“Of course we will,” she says, and she is holding onto his hand, but then his fingers grow slack and fall away.
James’ knife is in her hand before she can gather a thought and everything is rage and madness. She wonders who is screaming. Perhaps it is her own voice as she mindlessly charges on.
Kosan deflects one gauge, then a second, but then there is blood on the knife in her hand and Helena notes it with detachment. There’s Pete in front of her, a bulk of shoulders and ire, metal glinting in his grasp, and Helena has nothing lose.
It takes long moments until police sirens cut through the haze. James’ hand clamps around her arm. “Run, damn it!”
Around them, silhouettes scatter into the dark.
One last look, Pete has staggered to his knees, Steve is at his side, and Woolly looks so small, a broken doll next to Kosan’s still, massive form. Helena wants to rush back, but iron hands carry her off.
The knife falls from her grasp, landing on the concrete with metallic scrape as James pushes them behind a boulder and out of sight.
The metal creaks under Helena’s weight as she hoists herself up. It’s raining now, at last, and she has to be careful not to slip. She’s already halfway up to the third balcony when she realizes that it isn’t the metal that trembles, it’s her arms.
The window is closed, but there is a small light on inside and for a moment she pauses and allows herself to watch. Myka is sitting on her bed, surrounded by typewritten pages, a small, concentrated frown on her face as she reads.
For a second, Helena smiles. Raindrops are streaking down her face, or perhaps she is crying. She is still crouching there, when Myka looks up, alerted to the shadow outside. There’s a brief flash of fear – there should be, Helena thinks bitterly – but then the radiant smile is back and it’s all Helena will never have, and the window opens.
“Thank God you’re alright!”
Strong hands pull her into the room, but before Myka’s arms can wrap around her, Helena’s legs give out and she falls to her knees.
“I am so sorry.”
Helena looks down at her hands and sees smears of blood and she hears Myka gasp, so Myka as sheen them too.
“What happened? Are you hurt?”
And Helena is so tired. “It doesn’t matter.”
And Helena listens after her own name, and in Myka’s voice, it could be the name of someone who is loved. She wants Myka’s arms around her more than anything in the world, but when Myka moves to embrace her, she ducks away. “Don’t.” she stops Myka with an outstretched hand, the knuckles bruised. “You may not want to do this when you know –“
“What happened?” Myka has asked this before, sounding worried. Now, she sounds wary.
Helena shrugs, helplessly. “The fight got out of control.”
“Is this why nobody is coming home?” Myka is moving across the room.
“It all happened so fast. I…” Helena looks at Myka’s hands next to her own, holding a wet towel and dabbing at her bloodies knuckles. “What are you doing?”
“This needs to be cleaned,” Myka states crisply.
Helena grabs her hands to still them, and Myka’s eyes are so close to her own. “I may have killed your brother.”
Myka doesn’t speak at first. When she does, her voice is ice. “Tell me you’re lying.”
“I don’t know,” Helena tries to explain and she know she can’t. “I just barged on… that hulk went down…”
“…Kosan,” Myka whispers.
“I think it was me,” Helena says, and it’s all a blur, the blade in her hand, the screams, Wolly’s awkwardly twisted form on the asphalt. “And I know Pete was on the ground. I didn’t mean to, I just…”
A slap across her face stops her, and then fists are raining down on her shoulders, her chest. Helena doesn’t move away.
“Why didn’t you stop it?” Myka is crying more than she is yelling. “Why didn’t you stop?”
Her hands come closer again and Helena flinches in reflex, but instead of hitting her again, Myka’s fingers wind into her hair, and Helena is still kneeling.
Myka’s voice is small when she asks, “How can I even be with you now?”
“Told you you wouldn’t want to,” Helena bites out with feigned bravado, but Myka’s hands in her hair tell a different story.
“Damn you, Helena.” And it’s the gentleness in her tone that is killing Helena.
“They killed Woolly,” she blurts out. “I don’t know whose knife it was, that hulk was there… And Pete. And Steve. And then I…” She looks up, and Myka is looking back at her and once more, the endless green beckons her, but the gates to Ujazdowski Park are closed now. “I don’t know what I did.”
Myka sits down at the edge of the bed. Pages of Helena’s manuscript still fly about and a few of them end up with smudges of blood. “Where are they know? Where is Pete?”
“Steve was with him,” Helena remembers. “James got me out of there. And Woolly…” She closes her eyes tightly against the tears.
After a moment, there is a gentle brush against her fingers, and she opens her eyes to find Myka dabbing at her knuckles with the towel again. She winces when Myka also cleans up a cut along her temple.
“What are you doing?”
“This still needs dressing,” Myka points out practically. With the back of one hand, she wipes at the tears that won’t stop falling. “And then I should go to the hospital. Look for them –”
“You can’t go out there now.” Helena holds onto Myka’s arm. “In between the cops and both the Mushrooms and the Thirteens out for revenge…”
“But you are here,” Myka says, a little bewildered, and something shifts in her expression for a moment when she realizes what this means.
“I needed to see you one more time,” Helena says simply.
Myka is still crying, but her she is dropping to her knees opposite Helena and when her arms wrap around her, Helena doesn’t protest any longer. She closes her eyes as kisses rain all over her battered face.
“You don’t want to…” Helena protests weakly.
“I wish that was true,” Myka bites out and then her lips are on Helena’s, open and demanding. “I wish I could hate you.” She doesn’t stop kissing Helena, and she doesn’t stop crying. “But I can’t. I even understand you.”
Her hands tear at Helena’s wet shirt. If somebody walks in, so be it. It’s imperfect, and perhaps it is wrong, but it may be the only moment they ever have, and they will carve out one defiant nook for themselves, even if they already know that it will be run over, like a sand castle on the shore when the tide is rising.
They don’t talk, but their kisses are gentle now, and slow, and deep, and their hands are quick, and so is their breathing in the dark, and for one brief blink of time, nothing else exists, and they are just this, this moment, and they are alive. And that is enough.
Myka is tucked along the length of Helena’s body in the dark, curls splaying over Helena’s shoulder, and they breathe each other on by their skin, just another minute, and then another.
“I will have to leave town,” Helena says.
“I know.” Myka’s hand wraps around Helena’s atop a thigh.
Helena holds into that hand.“I won’t be able to come back.”
There’s a moment of silence, then Myka sits up.“And I will go with you.”
“Myka…” Helena knows she should protest, but she is looking at Myka, and her skin is so close to her own, and she doesn’t have the power to resist. “I might be wanted,” she points out, and the look Myka gives her then makes it clear that Helena is wanted by more than just the police.
“This is bigger than both of us.” Perhaps this is what Myka has known since the dance, that her place is where Helena is, and now she has the words for it and she will lend them to Helena, if need be.
A key in a door sounds, and there are voices inside the apartment suddenly.
“You’ve got to go.”
They scramble for the clothes in the dark apartment, and Helena is on the fire escape with her shirt still unbuttoned, her hair a glorious tumble. She turns around one more time.
“I’ve got a friend who can lend me some money. Tomorrow night, if you still want to leave… if we still can… I will wait at the library.”
There’s no time for more than a quick kiss. “I will be there,” Myka promises against red, red lips and then she is alone with just the flooring memory of Helena’s hand against her palm and the door gets thrown open and Claudia marches in.
It is a long night, and the next day is endless.
Helena prowls through the cellar beneath Mrs. Frederic’s store, a lone, dusty light bulb buzzing above her. Leena brings her a burger and a soda in the afternoon and wordlessly presses an envelope into her bruised hands.
It’s that envelope and a small bag, and her hat drawn down deep over her eyes, nothing else, as Helena heads out in the evening.
She hasn’t made it farther than the courtyard when Steve’s silhouette peels out of the shadows.
There’s a knife in his hand and above the blade, Helena meets his desperate gaze. He backs her into an alleyway and Helena is too battered to fight, but she will.
Her bag falls to the floor as they wrangle, silently, and she tries to keep the tip of the knife away from her throat.
“Don’t,” Helena hears herself say. She doesn’t want more bloodshed and there is something out there to live for, even though she knows she doesn’t deserve it. “Is it really me you hate?”
“You tried to seduce Myka!” he hisses, close to her face.
Helena almost smirks at that, despite being locked in a standstill and being the one without a knife. “But you don’t hate me for that,” she points out. “You hate me because I dare to live what you barely dare to think. And no knife can take that away from me.”
The tip of the blade brushes against Helena’s jaw.
“You killed Kosan! You nearly killed Pete!”
“My brother is dead.” Helena’s voice is hollow, but it makes Steve move back a fraction. “And I think your place is with Pete.”
He stares at her wildly for a moment, and she is surprised to see that his eyes are kind behind the despair.
Then he lowers the knife. He doesn’t look at her when he murmurs, “Good luck.”
Helena moves to pick up her bag again, but there’s another shadow limping closer and before she can make a mad dash for it, a gunshot rings out. “You touched my daughter!”
And Helena manages a defiant smirk even as she falls. “I think that was mutual. Sir.”
Lighter steps rush closer. “Helena…!”
And Myka’s arms are around her once more, cradling her.
“You came,” Helena’s voice is slurred.
“Of course.” Myka’s hands are on her face, brushing strands of hair out of her forehead, and it sounds like she is crying again.
“I’ve got the bus tickets…” Helena says, and she wonders why they are on the floor.
“Good,” Myka says through a sniffle. “That’s good. We’ll need them.”
“It’s cold…” Helena reaches for one of Myka’s hands and holds on tightly. “Myka… will we make it?”
“Of course we will,” Myka promises, tenderly, and brushes her lips against Helena’s brow. Her hands are shaking and she needs a moment to realize that Helena has grown still against her. When she moves back, she can see that Helena isn’t looking at her any longer.
Behind her, there’s the clatter of a cane on the street and Artie tumbles.
Mrs. Frederic is standing over him with a rifle. “Mister, you put that gun away right now!”
Helena’s hand slips from Myka’s grasp and onto the pavement, at an odd angle.
There’s blood on Myka’s clothes and there will be more blood as she mindlessly hugs Helena’s body to her. It’s still Helena’s warmth, Helena’s scent, and the softness of Helena’s lips, and the memory of this will be all she ever has, this and a stack of typewritten papers, creaked and yellowed by the years.
The summer heat is bearing down thickly onto the city, but despite the temperatures, there’s a window open on the third floor.
A soft pillow lines the sill, supporting the forearms of a woman who is reading. Now and then, she closes her eyes and tips her face up to the sun that echoes off short gray curls and fingers gnarly with age.
“Later, when the heat goes down, we’ll take a walk, Trailer.”
The dog at her feet pants in agreement. He hasn’t always been hers. His basket, she has brought over from Steve’s and Pete’s Chelsea apartment, after Pete passed away, and after Steve followed behind shortly.
Her eyes wander along the wall across from her, worn colors, faded with age, and sometimes she thinks they are worn from her gaze. A young woman, reading, one strap of her dress a little askew, her lips curled into a small, secretive smile…
At times, she has shown the mural to colleagues or children at the library. She knows that it is in some of the city tours. She sees them from her window sometimes. Very few know the whole story behind it, and most of those who did are gone now, just like Pete and Steve.
She is used to sparse company, she has remained unmarried. Still, she has never felt lonely.
“As long as there are books,” she mutters to herself, and she feels entitled by age to converse with herself.
She smiles when she looks down at the worn envelope of the first edition in her hands. Her fingers cover the title, but the author’s name is visible, and she smoothes a finger along its lines.